When longtime Las Vegas comedy magician The Amazing Johnathan announced in 2014 that he had been diagnosed with a severe heart condition (cardiomyopathy) and had been given only a year to live, he did it in the most dramatic fashion, onstage in front of a crowd of Vegas media and industry professionals. So it’s no surprise that Johnathan’s diagnosis and seemingly miraculous perseverance (nearly five years later, he’s still alive and performing) attracted the attention of multiple filmmakers eager to document his story.
Two separate films about Johnathan’s health and his return to the stage in 2017 are now competing for attention online, and while they have plenty of overlap in terms of subject matter, they take very different approaches to depicting Johnathan’s life. Ben Berman’s “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” has gotten the most attention of the two, starting with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January (where it was known as “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary”). Berman has greater resources and higher artistic ambitions than comedian (and frequent Vegas performer) Steve Byrne, whose “Always Amazing” played at much less prestigious film festivals before being made available on YouTube in June.
Both films are imperfect documents of Johnathan’s health struggles and his return to performing, and the ideal film about this complicated man would probably take an approach somewhere in between these two. Berman frames his movie as a sort of meta-narrative with surprises and revelations that recall music documentaries like “Searching for Sugar Man” and “A Band Called Death,” as well as David Farrier’s twist-filled investigative documentary “Tickled.” Byrne takes a much more conventional approach with “Always Amazing,” using talking-head interviews, archival clips and some candid footage to construct his story.
Berman seems to have spent more time with Johnathan, and his film is more intimate, delving more deeply into the performer’s heavy drug use and the day-to-day management of his health issues, which largely falls to his wife Anastasia Synn. Berman’s film spends less time on laying out Johnathan’s history and more time on the present-day challenges of staying healthy and preparing for a new tour after several years out of the spotlight. Byrne gives a broader overview of Johnathan’s career, and “Always Amazing” is more effective at showing casual viewers why Johnathan matters, and how his combination of edgy jokes, prop comedy and magic tricks made him a unique presence on TV in the ’80s and ’90s.
Both filmmakers take frustrating detours as their movies go on, and Berman’s film eventually becomes completely consumed with its shift in direction, away from telling Johnathan’s story and into telling the story of its own creation. Once Berman discovers that Johnathan has allowed other filmmakers and camera crews (including Byrne, whose name is ominously bleeped out as if he’s some kind of government agent) to follow him, he starts mistrusting everything that Johnathan says, up to and including his dire medical diagnosis.
While Johnathan is clearly being a bit underhanded and opportunistic in agreeing to multiple film projects, he’s not nearly as duplicitous as Berman briefly makes him out to be. Berman makes his movie all about himself, even changing the focus of his interviews with industry figures, asking them for their opinions on the multiple documentary crews rather than for their recollections of working with Johnathan. If Berman had made the kind of bombshell discovery that Farrier did in “Tickled,” say, then his histrionics would be justified. But instead he just succeeds at turning a movie about a dying man into a movie about an insecure filmmaker.
Byrne goes astray in a less extreme way, devoting large sections of “Always Amazing” to Johnathan’s longtime assistant and protégé Joel Ozborn, who’s obviously an important figure in Johnathan’s life but doesn’t quite warrant the amount of screen time he gets over Johnathan’s family members and other performers. Perhaps Byrne had more access to Ozborn than to anyone else in Johnathan’s life (including Johnathan himself), but the focus on Ozborn’s time with Johnathan (and their reunion for Johnathan’s comeback tour) overshadows the movie’s more pressing concerns.
Both movies eventually set themselves right, and Berman demonstrates a strong personal bond with Johnathan that allows for an emotionally affecting conclusion. Seeing this frail, terminally ill man defiantly take the stage to perform the goofy jokes and tricks that have been his life’s work is inspiring, and both movies emphasize the accomplishment of Johnathan’s return to live performance. On their own, the films are each flawed and messy, indicative of debut filmmakers whose reach exceeds their grasp. Taken together, they paint a full portrait of a Vegas icon who’s still defying medical (and show business) odds.
“Always Amazing” is available on the All Things Comedy YouTube channel
“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” premieres August 16 on Hulu.